Yay, We Made A Mistake!!

Embracing Discomfort

Yesterday I was part of the East Side Institute’s http://www.eastsideinstitute.org Winter Institute: Getting Out of Our Comfort Zones (Together) led by Cathy Salit, CEO of Performance of A Lifetime http://www.performanceofalifetime.com and Christine LaCerva, Director of The Social Therapy Group centers http://www.socialtherapygroup.com.

Cathy led us in a fun game where we had to use a different name for ourselves (our middle name or nickname or a made-up super hero name).  We formed circles of 10-11 people around the room and had to quickly tried to learn everyone’s name.  Then each person  pointed to another in the circle and said their name.  If someone hesitated or said the wrong name they threw their arms up and said, “We made a mistake!” – then the others in the group responded with throwing their arms up and adding, “We did!” and then we all applauded and cheered and then the person who made the mistake moved to another circle.

The discussion/debrief about this game was quite rich.  This was a new experience, to  find ourselves in a situation in which we said “We made a mistake!” when someone in our group made a mistake.  The attendees shared many responses to making mistakes, to others making mistakes and what that looks like in many contexts, business being one of the more difficult environments for making mistakes and embracing the social activity of mistake-making (vs the blame game).

LaCerva was encouraging workshop attendees to get out of our comfort zones by embracing discomfort, embarrassment and the embarrassment of others, and our weirdness in the face of being outside of our comfort zone.  The activity of embracing the mistakes we make and others make as our mistakes is weird, uncomfortable and embarrassing.  LaCerva reminded us that in our culture we are “addicted to thinking of ourselves”.  She suggested that we, “go beyond the tyranny of the normal.” It turns out, as  people shared, that it is freeing and less constraining emotionally to allow ourselves to have our relationality, we are social beings; we cannot do much of anything without others and that includes making mistakes.  

My colleague Lois Holzman is writing a book called The Overweight Brain.  She posts the book, chapter-by-chapter, for all to read on her website: http://loisholzman.org/books/latest-installment/ 

In Chapter 2, which Lois just posted, she introduces people to Lev Vygotsky, a “revolutionary scientist” and early Soviet psychologist.  Towards the end of the chapter Lois quotes Vygotsky: 

Somehow our society has formed a one-sided view of the human personality, and for some reason everyone understood giftedness and talent only as it applied to the intellect. But it is possible not only to be talented in one’s thoughts but also to be talented in one’s feelings as well. The emotional part of the personality has no less value than the other sides, and it also should be the object and concern of education, as well as intellect and will. Love can reach the same level of talent and even genius, as the discovery of differential calculus.

In thinking about “we made a mistake” and our difficulties with embracing our failures (large and small), this notion that we could also be talented in our feelings as well as our intellect, makes it easier to radically accept our mistakes as being human.  Sadly our culture devalues our emotions and doesn’t allow us the room to embrace our feelings of embarrassment, etc. when we make mistakes. Instead the norm is to have to find someone to blame.

I learned and experienced many things in this workshop.  Perhaps the most important was that certain mistakes, often the larger, more challenging/upsetting mistakes that we make happen because we’ve grown.  We put ourselves in more challenging positions and therefore we make bigger mistakes.  We spend so much time berating ourselves for our mistakes, or blaming ourselves or others, that we totally miss that because we’ve grown and developed so the stakes are higher.  That turns mistake-making on its head!

Or, as Lois puts it:

We’re always making something new out of what exists. We transform the very circumstances that we’re in. We engage in becoming.

Granted, it might be hard to throw your hands in the air and cheer, “We made a mistake!” at the office but the next time you or a colleague makes a mistake, try a new performance and see what it’s like to not have to blame anyone and thereby engage in becoming.  It might just make your overweight brain a little lighter!

Showing who we are – A storytelling approach

I’ve been taking a class — Talking to People in Public: A Storytelling Approach with Cathy Rose Salit, President & CEO of Performance of a Lifetime and Chris Helm, a talented teacher of all things philosophical — in order to learn more about coaching whilst I improve my own presentation abilities.

At this week’s class we began making presentations that Cathy then redirected to help us develop our capacity to not only talk about ourselves but to show our audience who we are.  This was a very instructive and creative exercise.

I chose to make the presentation “Why Improvisation?” that I’ve recently made in a corporate setting.  I gave my presentation to the class.  Then Cathy shared with the class that she and I know each other quite well.  In fact we currently perform together in an improv troupe at the Castillo Theatre – The Proverbial Loons; we have been performing together for 20 years.  She made the following suggestion:  She asked me to ask the audience for a list of characters and to write them on a whiteboard; then I was to give my presentation again, only this time as the characters on the list, the class could tell me when to switch to a new character.

I did my presentation again, this time I started out as a Russian man, then I was a dog, then I was a college student barista at Starbucks and I ended the presentation as a nagging mother — it was very funny and entertaining.

Cathy was teaching me and us how to show who we are; rather than lecturing about improvisation, I improvised! We then discussed how this would impact the audience for this presentation within a corporate setting.  It was a very rich and valuable dialogue.  In my letting people see who I am as a 20 year veteran improviser (and giving them this fun experience) it might create more of an environment for them to trust me in taking them through a workshop to teach these skills, which they can then apply to their own work (cold calling and developing better communication capabilities).

This approach to storytelling and sharing who we are by demonstrating who we are rather than talking about who we are is much more intimate and vastly more creative.

I’d love to hear how you can use this approach in your own presentation work.

For more information about classes at the East Side Institute and Cathy Rose Salit please see these links:



Improvisational magic

Not surprisingly I am an improvisation advocate.  This week I had a series of conversations with a diverse grouping of executives, friends, and colleagues about various life challenges.  In almost every case I found myself advocating on behalf of the basics of improvisation:

Say yes
Actively listen
Focus on the ensemble and/or the other
Stay postive
Build and create with others

I’ve been reading a few articles this week that brought improvisation to mind. One article in the HBR this week — How to Really Listen by Peter Bregman http://bit.ly/pAiXop — has much to say about listening that I agree with.  Sadly Bregman leaves out play, performance and improvisation and offers readers a cognitive behavioral approach to developing better listening capabilities.

One thing that Bergman wrote in this article jumped out at me and it is this simple statement:

Listening, it turns out, is magic.

I think there is a magic that comes with creating conversation and a key ingredient is active listening. This made me think of the wonderful work that my colleague, Cathy Salit the CEO of Performance of A Lifetime, does with corporate executives.  Cathy is an expert at helping people actively listen and create new conversations.  Here’s a wonderful excerpt to an interview Cathy recently gave with Michelle James on her blog, The Fertile Unknown http://bit.ly/pXag1w

What mindsets and behaviors do you see as essential for effectively navigating the new work paradigm?

Cathy: Improvise. Perform. Relate to every conversation, meeting, and interaction as an improvisational scene in which you are a performer, writer and director. Break rules and make up new ones — not just in coming up with ideas, but in how we organize what we do together and how we do it in the workplace. Become a creative artist whose medium is everyday life.

We can all become a creative artist “whose medium is everyday life” — now that’s magic!

Why improv?

On Friday I was having a conversation with a new friend and colleague I met at the NYC Applied Improvisation Network and he asked me the question, “Why improv?” in business.  My response had a lot to do with my understanding of and appreciation for “the power of play” – play is where development, creativity and innovation takes place.  I invited him to a fundraiser that was held yesterday for the East Side Institute http://www.eastsideinstitute.org/ to get a taste of the cutting edge approaches to learning, development, therapeutics and community-building that are sponsored by the organization.   

At the event I introduced my entrepreneurial colleague to the CEO of Performance of a Lifetime, Cathy Salit. POAL is one of the premier training organizations doing theatre-based executive education http://www.performanceofalifetime.com and Cathy happens to be a long-time colleague of mine (we perform musical improv comedy together in the Proverbial Loons).  It was helpful to hear Cathy talk about the therapeutic aspect of the work she and POAL does, creating new possibilities for individuals and therefore for groups/organizations.

On Sundays I always enjoy reading Adam Bryan’s “Corner Office” column in the New York Times.  Ironically yesterday he started his interview with Mark Fuller, CEO of WET Design with a discussion of improvisation.  I was happy to see this and sent the link to my friend.  This is the quote that jumped out at me:

If you think about it, if you have an argument with your wife or husband, most of the time people are just waiting for the other person to finish so they can say what they’re waiting to say. So usually they’re these serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening. That doesn’t work in improv. If we’re on the stage, I don’t know what goofball thing you’re going to say, so I can’t be planning anything. I have to really be listening to you so I can make an intelligent — humorous or not — response.

I love that Fuller starts out by talking about the mundane arguments we all have and, although he doesn’t say that, the activity of improvisation, of performing, of pretending in life in a self-conscious manner is undeniably developmental.  And I have to say that most of my day is spent interviewing people and I do have to underline what Fuller is saying about “serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening” but I will save that topic for another blog post!

Back to the fundraiser at the East Side Institute – Dr. Lenora Fulani, the Dean of the All Stars Project’s new initiative UX, and a co-founder of the All Stars gave a presentation on her work.  She has recently co-written a paper with Dr. Fred Newman, her fellow co-founder of the All Stars called “Let’s Pretend” (use this link to download “Let’s Pretend” http://bit.ly/gQk9ja ).  Although the paper was written to solve the education crisis in America, I think there is enormous value in taking the fundamental methodology of this paper into boardrooms and offices as well.  If we pretend we can become … better learners, better leaders and better people.

Why improv?  Let’s keep performing our answer to this most important question.